Fraser Canyon, 1984
“This is the year of Dacker,” he tells us, dragging the back of his hand across his wet forehead and leaving behind a trail of dirt. Hs forehead, cheeks and the spot on the top of his head where his hair is thinning, have been reddened by the sun. The rest of his face is tanned, except for the crinkles radiating from his eyes which flatten into white lines on the rare occasions when a doubt flits across his face, like now, frowning while he stoops to check the tension of the fan belt. Here on a gravel-locked finger of land jutting into the Fraser River, his gold machine, after a decade of experiments, false starts and out-and-out disasters, is ready to be tested.
Dacker, my father, straightens up: the mercury level in the traps is exactly where he wants it. I can see in his eyes that he will succeed in pulling the floury gold from the gravel and black sands sliding down the cylinder because he wills it so.
“This time it’ll work,” he assures me and my younger brother, Brad.
With his beard and skyward invocations, my father reminds me of the main character in Fiddler on the Roof. I almost expect him to start humming ‘If I were a rich man’. Instead, he bends closer to inspect the grissley bars intended to screen out the largest rocks at the bottom of the sluice box. His long nose – which is striking, noble and the reason strangers mistake him for being Jewish – nearly touches the bars as he peers through. He is rehearsing how the rich sands will be separated here and the gold extracted there, in the mercury traps. He calls them traps, but really they’re just ledges along the inside of a steel pipe, six inches in diameter, one of the treasures my father has salvaged from a scrap yard.
This gold machine is the prototype for the many to follow (the real money is in manufacturing he says). It has been transported the three hundred or so miles from Vancouver Island via road and the B.C. Ferries on the back of a flat-bed truck. My father picked up the truck “for peanuts” at a livestock auction because of its faulty parking brake (“Who needs it? I can put a stone under the tire.”) as well as, potentially, other mechanical problems I don’t want to contemplate. All the way here I held onto the dashboard as we careened through mountain terrain so steep whole hillsides have slid down into the bubbling Fraser River. Even my 21-year-old brother, 6’4″ and an ace motorcycle driver, looked nervous.
“Easy on the brakes, Dad,” he said more than once, glancing down at the cavernous cleft beside us. Even in the sunshine, the Fraser is mud brown as it hurtles past us.
“The first thing I’m going to do is buy a new vehicle,” my Dad said as we drove, his eyes on some spot on the road ahead of us which neither Brad nor I could see. “I’m tired of these shitboxes.” He nudged my brother, squeezed between us. “What kind of car do you want?”
“A Ferrari,” Brad replied, still watching the river.
“What about you, Lori?”
“Dad, let’s just see if the machine works,” I pointed out, refusing to get drawn in.
“Your sister’s a real downer,’ my father said to Brad, then looked sidelong at me. “I hope you’re not going to be like this when I’m rich.”
“Dad, the road!” is my only reply.
To prove to us that he is finally going to make it big, he has chosen the mighty Fraser, site of Canada’s great gold rush and rumored to still be harboring great reserves of gold. Nowadays, in certain areas where the water slows down, grizzled down-on-their-luck prospectors compete with families who drive their campers right down to the river’s banks to try out the gold pans they bought at the K-Mart in Chilliwack. But not here, not where the river rages just downstream of the overhead ferry which carries one car at a time in what from here looks like the wire basket our milkman used back in Kirkland Lake. We are alone under the swaying cars; there are no prospectors, no families, no gold pans, just my father and his metal contraption. Shirtless, sun-darkened, he kneels beside his machine as if praying it not fail him. Not this time.
Ten years it has taken him to get ready, yet he inspects, adjusts, checks for tension and tilt, and moves parts only to put them in exactly the same spot. That he is ready, at last, is more of chance than plan: the engine responsible for rotating the cylinder at precisely 400 rpms, arrived unexpectedly from Calgary two days ago, sent by an old war buddy, Waul Boyle. Waul’s find meant that my dad could not forestall the trip up here any longer. He tightens a screw on the sluice box and he is ready.
Over the Atlantic, January 28, 2011.
We are crossing the ocean now. We. Make that me and a hundred or so other people I’ll never get to know. The two young women ahead of me as we boarded had identical Teddy bears dangling from their back packs. Because of Maxine, whenever I board a plane i wonder if these people are people I will die with.
My traveling companion on this trip is The Year of Dacker, a half-finished biography of my father. I started it in graduate school, in Vancouver – half a world away, no, half a lifetime away from Paris, where I now live. The sheets are printed in purple mimeographed ink. I wasn’t even sure I still had this manuscript, but yesterday, on a hunch, I unlocked the cupboard in my office where I keep Maxine’s journals, and there it was. I haven’t set eyes on those pages since I moved to Paris over twenty years ago, with a degree and a dream of writing the Great Canadian Novel.
Why Paris? I know more people there who are running from something than I do people running to something. I have my suspicions about which camp I’m in.
The news from the hospital is all over the place. One day the operation has been successful and he can go back to Boca de Tomatlan, the fishing village in Mexico where he lives. The next day he is being transferred to Intensive Care.
A week ago Monday it was his birthday. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have called him, wouldn’t have known he was collapsed on the floor, unable to even dial the phone. If it hadn’t been precisely that day, I wouldn’t have dialed every number I knew in the village, shouting “Pick up, pick up,” until finally someone did.
Yet after his operation, when he was sounding like his old self – so much so that he was talking about his latest scheme to sell coconuts – I argued with him. The last thing I said to him was “Dad, it’ll never work. You’re dreaming.” I haven’t been able to talk to him since. Does he even know I’m coming?
Fraser Canyon, 1984
The machine my father is tinkering with is his own version of the ones that fetch thousands of dollars from the rich believers who congregate at placer mining conventions. To come up with the consummate instrument for gold extraction, my father has combined all the different processes in one single machine. Though he quit school in grade eight, he laid down schematics on the backs if grocery receipts, napkins and pieces if cardboard, then carried them in a paper Safeway bag to the welder he hired to put it all together.
This gold machine is the latest in a series of incarnations. The first one, completed seven years ago, was three years in the making, a welder’s nightmare of moveable parts, all of which were designed and re-designed, altered partway through as my father’s ideas changed, then altered again. After the first year the gold machine outgrew the rented warehouse in Victoria in which it had been constructed so it had to be moved outside – where under Victoria’s persistent rainfall, the parts rusted as quickly as the welder could attach them.
The only welder to last more than a week working for my father under those conditions was Oscar Holmes, a big man with the effeminate nickname of Pinky for his boozy complexion. He was a sixty-year-old alcoholic who had been out of work for a long time, but nevertheless referred to himself, with more than a little pride, as being ‘self-employed’. He was a heavy, inarticulate man who wore the same overalls to work every day and shuffled when he walked, hiding small, girlish hands in his pockets.
My father and he made allowances for each other, and in the three years they worked together on the gold machine, they had to make a great many of those. Pinky tolerated all the revisions while my father faithfully gave him his wages in cash at the end of the day, having learned that if he paid him in advance or gave him too much at once, Pinky’d drink the money away then have his wife call to say his ulcer was acting up or his arthritis was bothering him or even, once or twice, that he’d had a heart attack. Whenever my father forgot these lessons, and trustingly gave him money to buy supplies, he would drink the money away instead and not return until the following day, or the one after. Then, saying nothing, he would work diligently until it happened again. Or what was diligent for him. Swearing is health was delicate, Pinky refused to labour under any. But ideal conditions, and if his pampered hands grew cold during Victoria’s mild wines, my father would find him curled up on a pile of men’s magazines at the back of the warehouse.
When my father ran out of improvements, the first gold machine was ready to be tested at a site in the Sombrio area of Vancouver Island where there had already been promising gold showings. What he hadn’t counted on, however, was that the mach one was so big no truck in Victoria could safely ferry it over the hairpin turns of the gravel roads that twisted down to the testing site.
It still sits outside my father’s warehouse, rusting in the winter rains. My father remained hopeful, but Pinky proved that even a poor man can take only so much: when my father asked him to start all over again, he threw his toque down on the ground and walked away muttering to himself.
To replace Pinky, my father hired Kit Tsing, a Vietnamese welder who held three jobs concurrently. He had been one of the first ‘boat people’ to arrive in Canada. He once told my brother and myself, using his remarkably small English vocabulary, how he dove into the water to save his daughter after the Malaysian police threw all the children overboard.
I’ve always suspected that Kit’s English was better than he let on. Professing not to understand, Kit paid only minimal attention to my father’s directions. It took him only a year and a half to build the second machine, a more manageable version of the first. That spring, with my father anxiously directing, a crane loaded it in sections onto the five-ton flat-bed truck that would carry it to the test site, I think only luck and a prayer kept it from sliding off the back or sides while the vehicle lurched down loose gravel roads to the Sombrio riverbed.
Because people go a little crazy when gold is involved, anyone else would have conducted these tests in private, jealously guarding the results. Even if – especially if – the invention worked, it would have been kept secret for fear the idea would be copied before it make ti to the next mining convention where it would go for tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands. But my father isn’t what you’d call cagey. Naive and trusting is more like it. So he chose to test gold machine number two in an area less than thirty miles outside Victoria, already the base for a group of prospectors.
With Kit, my father and me squeezed into the cab of the flat-bed truck, we drove across the Sombrio riverbed at its shallowest point. The prospectors were gathered under a tarpaulin stretched over some alder logs for shelter from the spring rain. As we three stepped out of the cab – a middle-aged man with a tweed jacket and a beat-up felt hat, young Kit in his welding work clothes, and me, a university student in jeans with my ever-present notebook in my hands – they shrank back. That is, except for two old men, beards nearly as long as their matted hair, scrutinized us from a distance.
I was beginning to feel that we might be in some danger when a third man, who looked like he had stumbled directly out of the sixties, ventured out from under the tarpaulin. A French Canadian named Andre, he was long-haired and bearded like the others, but his hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He must have known my father from a previous visit because he addressed him now, talking about a prospector named Molly who lived along in a cabin back in the woods. As he spoke, Andre shoved half a bologna sandwich into his mouth. “Took a shot at me, she did,” he related, not handicapped by the mouth of bologna. “Could ‘ave ‘hit me also.”
This was the wild west to me, so far from my reality of classes and evenings in the Student Union Building, but my father didn’t sound the least surprised. “What did you expect? You must have been near her claims.”
When Andre went back to the shelter, my father whispered to me, “Don’t get too friendly – these prospectors are crazy as coots.” Then he returned to giving Kit contradictory directions.
Kit carried on with what he knew had to be done, ignoring my father’s interference, as usual.
“You not do it that way. You supposed to put these two parts together,” my father said in the pidgin English he always believed Kit could understand better, and which probably shaped Kit’s mistaken ideas of English grammar.
“No, not right,” Kit answered without looking up to see which two pieces my father was referring to.
When all the sections had been joined, Kit squatted on the ground to start the motor. The other prospectors had come out as far as the edge of the tarpaulin to observe the action. The fine spray of rain, at first no wetter than an ocean wind, turned suddenly to downpour. My father took off his raincoat and. Held it over Kit. We waited. Kit got the motor running, and then began making adjustments, checking the revs and the gasoline mixture, flicking the fuel line with his finger to ensure an unclogged passage. When the rain began to drip from Kit’s flattish nose, my father bent over further to shield him. The raincoat was instantly wrenched out of his hands. One arm had caught in the fan belt. We watched, helpless, as the coat flapped around and around, becoming more entangled in the motor, which was starting to burn itself out. Then the timing chain snapped and the engine died.
Even I could tell we’d witnessed the end if the second gold machine. “Too much fix,” Kit said, still squatting on the ground. My father just stared. He was silent for the longest time, then he said, “Well, no point taking it back then.” We left it where it died. Perhaps by now Andre and the others have stripped it down for parts.
The gold dreams aren’t my dad’s fault. Ever since we left the Northern Ontario mining town of Kirkland Lake, gold has been the catalyst for my father’s dreams of what his life will be. Long after we came to British Columbia, my father retained the ability to see the future in a spit-polished nugget, like the one he bought at a mining convention last ear. “This is just to tide you over until my machine starts producing,” he said as he gave me the nugget for a necklace. Then he told me again that soon I wouldn’t need to worry about the money to pay for my university.
I guessed this was what happened when you grew up in a town built on hopes and dreams. A town where chancing to find a yellow nugget in the rocky northern wilderness could make you as rich as your dreams. Or richer. Being from a town that once held the world’s second largest gold deposits outside South Africa, meant that somehow gold had found its way into his bloodstream.
Gold, or the promise of it, once prompted my dad to trade a car for a treasure map. That quest began the day a neighbor offered to help refinish the battered wooden-hulled boat up on blocks in our front yard. The boat had been acquired somehow or other in a business deal, and my father had great plans for it. Never one to question anyone’s motives, he readily agreed to accept the neighbor’s help. At first he complained that the man talked incessantly – my father had been known to say to acquaintances, “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d just like to think in peace.”
But gradually I began to notice that he was starting to listen to this man, who repeated words like “doubloons”, “Spanish”, “chest” and “cave” with such regularity, I realized he was telling the same story over and over. The version I later gave myself is that at the beginning my father was content enough to let the words fill the space between them as they worked. But soon, almost against his will, he started asking questions. “Does anyone else know?” “Why didn’t you move it yourself?” and, finally, “How hard would it be to get to?”
Then one day my father bought the neighbor a car. A 1964 Rambler to be exact. When i asked him why, he said they had a business arrangement. It was so unlike my father to hold anything back, that’s when I began to worry.
Four days later, while my brother Brad was visiting our mother, I discovered a strange pile in our basement. Ropes, burlap sacking, two flashlights, rubber boots, a pick axe, a
pit helmet. Just the kind of stuff you’d scrounge from an army surplus. Just then my father appeared with an apple crate under his arm.
“I’m going on a little trip,” he explained hastily, as if I’d caught him before he’d figured out his story, “You’ll have to hold the fort here for a week or so. Brad’ll be back soon.”
“Does this have something to do with Spanish doubloons,” I asked.
“So you heard us,” he said uncomfortably. “I wasn’t going to tell you. You’re always so skeptical. Now, before you say anything negative, I’ve looked into this one thoroughly. He gives me the same story each time, and in such detail, even to the buckles on the boots in the cave, he couldn’t be making it up.” His face held a peculiar expression, half embarrassment at the unlikeliness of the story, half hopefulness that he almost dared not give into. Against my as yet unspoken arguments, he gave in to his hope, and his look said that the very idea that the story could be a fabrication was impossible to conceive.
“I checked at the library, and the boots would be the right style for the time the Spanish landed in this area. Of course I am a little skeptical myself,” he added. “I’m not a fool. I’m just going to satisfy my curiosity.” Despite his disclaimer, I could see it was already too late: I could see his eagerness in the bits of light in his hazel eyes.
“Where is this chest supposed to be, and why on earth would he be bringing you in?” I asked, then realized I sounded like I was taking this story seriously too.
“It’s in a cave off a logging road in Sooke, not far from where the Spanish galleons could have landed.” He began tossing supplies into the apple crate. “He w with another guy when he found it, they couldn’t get it out, so they made a plan to go back. But he thinks this guy wi ll try to screw him out of it, so he wants me to bring the chest out. We’ll split the profits with his partner once the government clears us to keep it.” He plucked a pair of garden shears from a nail on the wall and slid them into the side of the box.
“What if it’s a trap or something?”
“I knew you’d shoot me down. This is why I didn’t tell you.” he lifted the box and carried it up the stairs with me following behind.
On the kitchen table was another box. From where I stood I could glimpse a packet of Eddy matches, a tin of jam, pancake mix, maple syrup, a pound of rapidly softening butter, a dozen eggs and a greasy package of bacon. This was his basic survival kit, and he’d forgotten to pack a frying pan.
“I’m going with you,” I told him.
Several hours later, the map had led us past Sooke to where a gravel road veered suddenly to the right. Even I began to feel a stirring of hope as the sketch correctly identified the signposts along the way – the broken and hanging arbutus branch, the triangle of rocks on the roadside, the gooseberry thicket just before the logging track ended. Each road mark was exactly where the map said it would be. Despite myself, I started to feel a growing sense of excitement.
Driving in as far as we could go, we came up over a hill and found ourselves in a basin where the logging trucks turned around. The area was deserted. My father jumped out of the car before it had barely settled into park and climbed the ridge to look for the next marker, a semi-circular grove of Douglas firs that would be shading the mouth of the cave. Even though there was no one around, I locked the doors and pocketed the keys before running up to join my father.
When I got to the crest of the ridge, he was just standing there, shoulders stooped. As far as we could see, clear to the Pacific Ocean, the hills had been clear cut. Only a few diseased trees remained, leaning leafless over the still bleeding cuts of the stumps. If the cave had existed, it would have been in full view.
My father’s hazel eyes had lost their shine and were dead dull brown when he turned to me, saying, “Well, that’s that. Let’s go.”
But the gold stayed in him.
I watch my father now at the edge of the Fraser as he studies the machine that is the culmination of his hopes over the ten years we have been on the West Coast. We came following the fire which destroyed our home in Kirkland Lake a scant three weeks after the fire insurance expired, long before my father would have gotten around to renewing it. The fire wiped out all that had been collected over three lifetimes – my father’s, my brother’s and mine (our mother having rescued her belongings five years before the fire, when she left our father). He gave the burned out remains the same long look he gave that day over the clear cut ridge. But this time he turned to us and said, “Well kids, now we’re free.”
And we were free. Free to move out West in our Volkswagen van. Free to follow our dreams. Dreams which now, for my father, rest in this third gold machine.
I can tell he’s forgotten that Brad and i are here. That’s okay by me. My brother is skipping rocks at the water’s edge, and I’ve brought my journal. Still, I’m finding it hard to concentrate and ins read find my attention drawn to my father. He, as always, is oblivious to his power to command our attention.
The sun, striking us squarely now, is hot but I can feel a cooker breeze coming off the Fraser. My father doesn’t notice as he stands in the wind’s path, hands on hips. Then he abruptly goes down to where my brother is counting the number of skips. “Brad, where did you put the pail?”
“it must be in the back of the truck,” Brad says, offhand, gesturing up the slope.
My father retrieves the pail himself then goes down to the river again. He scouts around and I can tell he’s looking for the most likely spot for gold-rich gravel.
“Need help?” I yell to him, trying to project my voice above the roar of the Fraser. He can’t hear me so I go down, but he has already selected a site and is shoveling gravel into the pail.
When it is full, Brad and I each grab a side and carry it partway up the hill until my father, impatient and never willing to sit by while we struggle, takes it from us. Hugging it to his chest, he climbs the slope then sets it next to his machine.
Unable to delay any longer, he again grasps the pail in both arms. With a grunt he heaves it up to the lip of the sluice box, which looks like a giant wooden serving tray. His brown forearms, elaborately tattooed as a result of his much-regretted youthful act of rebellion, are shaking, muscles taut. The heavy gravel begins to spread out over the grissley bars. The sweat that trickles down either side of his face is absorbed in his beard as he brings the container to rest on his bare shoulder. The tanned skin on his arms and back is smooth; underneath the muscles quiver with the strain. As the last grains filter through the sluice box screen, he sets the empty pail on the ground and steps back to wait,
Except for the beard, in this light he looks very much like his father. I know this because I remember my grandfather’s face, and because on the wall of our old house before it burnt down we had a photograph of him, a kindly mustached man who reminded me of Walt Disney. He was one of the pioneers of Kirkland Lake, and always on the verge of cashing in on the gold rush. Now and then I catch a glimpse of my father in a clear light such as this, and see HIS father’s smiling eyes in him. My eyes must be the same because I’m hoping, God I’m hoping, that this time…
The light has changed now. Clouds have come tumbling up the path of the Fraser, making me wish I’d had the foresight to bring the sweater the truck. My father pays no attention to the shift in weather. He is still pacing with his shirt off, but is skin is somehow less lustrous, paler, now the sun has gone away. Even the grey in his darkish hair is more prominent. I don’t like this light at all. Brad comes up from skipping stones and we all await the verdict together.
Perhaps the reason this third machine has been so long in the making is that after the last failure with Kit down at the Sombrio, my father turned to a new process. A week after that day, he announced to Brad and me across the dinner table that it had been a lucky accident. “I realize now I’ve been going in the wrong direction,” he told us. “I met a man who has a mercury process that’s even better than a centrifuge.” For the first time since the Sombrio, his eyes gained that translucence they have at certain moments, as if the flecks of gold in the hazel are actually reflective.
As he spoke to us of the future, he heaped on our plates one of his gourmet concoctions, ‘Crab a la Dacker’. He believed then, as now, that not being able to afford something special is no reason to deny yourself. Back when we used to shop together, before I went off to university, he’d become indignant if I tried to sneak hamburger into the shopping cart. “That’s for other people,” he’d say. “WE’RE going to be rich.”
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
January 29th, 2011
“My father raised my brother and me as a single father,” I told the surgeon just now, as if sharing something about the type of man my father is will make him more conscientious. I waited a beat, and my father chimed in with a sentence I’ve heard literally hundreds of times in my life: “I was a mother and father to my two kids.”
They do say that surgeons perform better when they feel a connection with their patients.
My father was supposed to come home today, and instead he’s gone back in for surgery. He was white with all the blood he’d lost, but still joking with me, and flirting with the young nurses.
Outside this waiting room a slight wind is rippling the row of palm trees.
Money, or rather the lack of it, is the other reason why construction of this latest machine dragged on; the project would sit idle for months until my father could pay for the next stage by siphoning off profits from him other business dealings. He was alternately selling firewood, antiques, used cars, flowers, Taiwanese tool sets, street lamps, scrap metal and just about anything else he happened upon. Every cent. He’s made beyond rent and food and gasoline has gone into the gold machine.
He is now bending close to the mercury traps. I know that with the vision he inherited from his father, and from all those other nooses and dreamers of Kirkland Lake, he can see the gold that will soon appear.
The machine has completed its cycle. Even Brad is leaning in to see what the results will be, although he feigns nonchalance. I shiver – the crowd cover is growing thick – but I dare not go back up to the truck and miss this moment.
My father appears to be holding his death. He opens up the mercury traps and, with a spoon, scoops the silvery thermometer liquid into a glass jar. Brad’s h ad tilts as he tries to see into the container.
“Just wait ’til I’m finished, Son,” my father barks, and I realize he hasn’t let himself look either. He continues to clean out the other traps. “Sorry, Brad,” he says, softening, “but you’ll just have to be like me and be patient.”
Unable to wait any longer, I walk away, but not very far, not as far as the river or the truck. I turn as my father, looking vulnerable somehow, empties the last trap. His movements have lost all the energy they had up until now. I want to go to him, put my arms around him, but there’s still hope. He is setting the jar on a rock, inspecting it to see if the mercury has acquired the necessary dullness, then swivels in in the palm of his and looking for the sluggishness that will tell him it is carrying gold.
“Let’s see,” Brad demands, pushing in close,
“There’s not much to look at, Son,” my father says and gets up. He doesn’t look at me but walks like an old man, fighting the wind down to the river bank. My brother is still rolling the jar of mercury over and over.
The wind is getting stronger. My father stares out over the wave-tossed Fraser. He is still bare to the waist and although he is broad and strongly built, all of a sudden he looks frail. I don’t like this look, and run up the truck to get his jacket.
“Here, Dad, put this on,” I say and hand it to him.
“What? Oh thanks.” his eyes do not meet mine, and instead flick back to the water. I move in closer to him and we stand like that, almost touching, for a time.
“I don’t see any gold,” my brother calls down to us. I think I see my father wince and I lace my fingers through his. His fingers are twice as broad as mine and the skin on his hands is rough. He keeps staring over the water and I can’t remember the last time I saw him this quiet or this still.
“Sometimes I think I’m just not going to make it,” he says in a voice barely audible above the Fraser. There’s something very disturbing about this admission, even though I’m always trying to get him to be more realistic.
“You don’t believe that for a second,” I rush in to reassure him. “You’ll try something else. You always do.”
“Well, I could have had the angle wrong, or maybe the water pressure wasn’t right, or….” He s half-facing me now.
“Exactly. That’s what tests are for. To get the bugs out.”
“I’d better have Kit look at the water pump when we get back to Victoria, that could be the problem.”
I give Brad’s a heads up sign as we walk up the slope to him.
In the way down the Fraser Canyon Highway, my father begins planning the next stage, he knows a man who has some property in the Yukon which has gold showings ten times those at the Fraser. He can work a deal to split the profits. “The gold values there are fifty dollars a yard. Let’s say it has only twenty. I can design a machine to process one hundred yards in eight hours. That’s two thousand dollars each and every day.”
I smile again, waiting for the phrase I’ve been hearing as long as I can remember, about how this is going to be his year.